Bills to link aid to fast graduation

By Lomi Kriel
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 01/07/2005

AUSTIN — Time is money, and taking more than four years to graduate from a state university costs too much, say several Texas legislators who plan to push programs granting cheaper, or free, tuition for students who get in and get out.

College money

Lawmakers worried about sharp increases in tuition and larger state university enrollments plan to push for a variety of measures this year:

Senate Bill 30 - Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo
Exempt students from having to pay for their final 15 semester credit hours if they graduate in four years in good academic standing.

Senate Bill 80 - Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso
Require schools to use 40 percent of undergraduate tuition revenue for financial aid if they charge more than $46 per semester credit hour.

House Bill 19 - Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan
Rebate any tuition increases if the student graduates in four years in good academic standing.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco
Plans to file a bill to require schools to set aside larger amounts of money for financial aid the higher tuition goes.

Two years after granting universities free rein to raise tuition rates — and trying to deal with the fallout from the speedy increases that resulted — several legislators are pushing proposals designed to ease at least part of students' financial strain.

But some have a caveat: Students must take more classes and graduate sooner.

"What a lot of students don't realize is how expensive it is to drag out a degree," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who says she got her bachelor's degree in three years while holding down part-time jobs.

Zaffirini's Senate Bill 30 would exempt students from having to pay for their final 15 semester credit hours if they graduate in four years while maintaining good academic standing, among other requirements.

She wants to amend the TEXAS Grants program so financially qualified students also must graduate in four years, and to offer stipends for graduate students who completed their undergraduate degrees in a timely manner.

Faster graduation rates would mean more vacancies in a higher education system that is at capacity, she said. It would also save the students money and ease the state's financial aid spending burden.

Many legislators who voted for tuition deregulation last session said they were shocked by what they called large and sudden tuition increases.

"We were all kind of taken aback," said Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, whose House Bill 19 would give students who graduate in four years in good academic standing a rebate worth the difference between the tuition the student actually paid and what would have been paid under tuition in effect in the student's first full semester.

"This puts a new emphasis on students overwhelmed by the rising cost," Brown said. "It gives these students incentives to get out quickly."

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said he plans to file a bill that would require schools to set aside money for financial aid in proportion to tuition increases — the higher schools raise tuition, the more they'd need to make available for financial aid.

"A lot of the institutions raised (tuition) a lot higher than they told us they were going to and put a lot of folks in the pinch, who turned to the state for aid," Averitt said. "What could have been a policy to help ease the burden on the state budget only exacerbated the burden."

A similar measure, Senate Bill 80, filed by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would require schools to dole out at least 40 percent of their undergraduate tuition revenue for financial aid if they charge more than $46 per semester credit hour.

Schools now must put away 20 percent of their tuition revenue if they charge more than $46 per credit hour. For fall 2004, 22 of the state's 34 public universities were charging more than that.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Plano Republican and a big proponent of tuition deregulation last session, said forcing universities to earmark more tuition revenue for financial aid would be counterproductive.

"They'd just have to increase tuition again," she said.

Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who co-chaired the Joint Interim Committee on Higher Education with Shapiro last year, said most universities already set aside more than 20 percent for financial aid.

"We don't want to necessarily tie their hands again, to where if they need more faculty, they don't have the funds, and they need (tuition) to keep going up," she said. "That's not going to help either."

Shapiro said the interim committee's new accountability system might alleviate some of the concerns about rising tuition by giving lawmakers the tools to fully compare schools and see how efficiently they use their money.

She also said she hopes lawmakers will wait to see how the accountability system works in justifying a school's proposed tuition increases, "before we just willy-nilly put a stop to" tuition deregulation.

In any case, getting students to graduate faster will lower costs for them and the state, Shapiro said. Students have to change their idea of a full class load and take 30 hours a year, she said.

"They're only taking up space when they only take nine hours a semester," she said.

Critics have said programs pushing students through college faster hurt those who juggle school with work or a family. Morrison agreed that everybody doesn't fit into the same mold.

"We don't want to penalize the students that have to work full-time," she said, adding that community colleges might be a good idea for those students for their first two years.

Raymund Paredes, commissioner for higher education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said community colleges will bear the brunt of the state's large enrollment increases expected by 2015, and their funding also should be a priority.

"Soon, we're not going to have enough space for all these students of college age," Paredes said.

"We don't appreciate the fact that 70 percent of students who start college do so at community college," he said. "It's a primary point of access, especially for low-income, first-generation college students."

But in a session slammed with pressing money needs — including the costs of overhauling the state's education funding system and its children's health insurance and protection agencies — lawmakers say funding everything won't be easy.

"We just have an exceptionally full plate this time around," Averitt said.

lkriel AT express-news.net